By Gabriel Stovall
STOCKBRIDGE, Ga. — Inside the human body, the heart always maintains its life-giving purpose, regardless of what’s happening around it.
Woodland softball coach Kelli Poff believes the same can be said regarding the heart of a team — of a coach who sees no reason to change her approach despite the personnel changes around her.
Seven seniors are gone from the Lady Wolfpack squad that created new expectations for Woodland softball over the last four years on the field while redefining the idea of family off the field.
But Poff is unfettered by an inexperienced squad that will begin the 2016 season Monday at ELCA, then with games later in the week against Hampton and Jones County. When you coach from a source beyond wins and losses, she says, it’s easy to remain the same.
“Honestly, no, (the inexperience) won’t change how I coach,” Poff said. “I coach from the heart, so regardless of the ratio of upperclassmen to lower, I only know one way to coach. Either way, it’s the same game, and we have to practice and play it the same way — with discipline and passion.”
Poff and company seemed to make it look easy over the last four years, with players such as Lexi Duncan, Lexee Emmanuel and Danielle Castleberry — three of the seven uber talented seniors who graduated after the 2015 season, leaving gaping voids of talent to be filled on the field, and perhaps even bigger holes in the way of intangibles.
“The legacy that group of seniors left behind is both beautiful and crucial to our future moving forward,” Poff said. “Those returning players who have been a part of the past success at Woodland know exactly what is expected and what it takes to win at this level. They’ve been a part of both the successes and disappointments along the way, and this will definitely benefit our team this year.”
Woodland will still rely on the strength of its senior class — particularly the right arm of four-year starting pitcher Mallie Brown — for a continuance of its past success in a newly re-tooled, Henry County-heavy Region 4-AAAAA.
Don’t call it pressure for Brown, though. By now, she’s used to being the catalyst to Woodland dominance.
“I’ve always been a workhorse growing up playing softball,” Brown said. “So being in this position really isn’t a surprise to me.”
Although she does admit looking at the Lady Wolfpack landscape from the perch of a senior has taken a little getting used to.
“It’s different and kind of weird, because I’ve always been the younger one,” she said. “And I’m used to everybody always taking me up and holding me up. It means more to you when it comes from an upperclassmen. But I feel confident. Me and the other seniors are taking our younger teammates under our wing and making sure they’re prepared for what the season will bring.”
Besides Brown, Poff will look to seniors Jade Harvey (SS), Morgan Brooks (2B) and Baileigh Neace (1B). Poff also believes some younger players such as junior Lindsey Thomas, who she says, “brings heart and work ethic, big time,” and sophomores Kadi Anderson and McKenzie Poore (CF) will turn heads before the 2016 season is done.
Sophomore Emily Stuber will assist Brown in pitching duties, but Poff knows that her team likely will go as far as Brown’s arm can take them.
“Having a veteran pitcher in Mallie definitely helps our program,” she said. “Not only does it bring experience and leadership, but it gives the team a senior on the mound to carry them with the loss of the seven seniors who were a major part in building the tradition we have at Woodland.”
Brown said she’s glad to have the confidence of her coach, especially heading into her final season at Woodland — one that she thinks will be as bittersweet as having to say goodbye to last year’s senior class.
“It definitely means a lot to have that (respect) from (Coach Poff),” said Brown who committed to Georgia College and State University last summer. “She’s an amazing coach, and she always has the best, wise words on and off the field. She definitely loves each one of her players. It’s going to be heartbreaking to leave after this year.”
That heartbreak could be soothed a bit, however, with a deep run in the state tournament at Columbus.
“The expectations are not going to get any lower, just because our team is younger,” Brown said. “We still have our expectations on winning. A lot of schools in our region have lost a lot of good players, so even with our youth we will still be evenly matched. It’ll still be a tough fight.”
And Poff’s been around coaching long enough to know that sometimes its the sort of off-beat years and teams that can raise up and shock you the most.
“You know, I think by the middle of the season, if we get into a groove and get some experience on the younger players, I think we can really sneak up and surprise some people,” she said. “Sometimes that’s the way it is. The stacked up teams you think are going to be the ones to win state, don’t, but sometimes it’s these kind of teams that can really surprise you and make those deep runs. We’re going to keep coaching as if that’s how it’s going to be.”